Boyhood proves Richard Linklater the nonpareil of carving out small moments of resounding truth in behaviors that are, for lack of any better phrase, made up. As in an early scene where a brother and sister’s quarrelling in the back seats of a car moves beautifully from bickering animus to snickering affection. Or when a mom makes the little “toot, toot” gesture with her thumb and forefinger to ask her teenage son if he’d been smoking weed. Or the father who consoles his kid with the harsh truth that his girlfriend “traded up.”
The film captures the young life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from first grade through his move-in day at the University of Texas at Austin. Shot over the course of 12 years with a cast of mostly unprofessional or semi-professional actors, as well as Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, this remarkably powerful film seems like a stunt only on paper. The span of Linklater’s story, if it can even be called that, allows him the latitude to leisurely explore Mason’s relationships to his mother (Arquette), sometimes-deadbeat dad (Hawke), sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), and a rotating cast of friends, girlfriends, and step-siblings.
While the film mostly orbits around Mason’s story, Arquette and Hawke’s characters feel fully formed to the point of seeming recognizable. He’s a hopeless wannabe musician—who does hopeless wannabe musician better than Hawke?—hung up on his classic GTO, anxious as he hides the drug paraphernalia when his kids come over every other weekend. In one of the saddest scenes in a film packed with them, he writes a song imagining his children pining in bed for their father’s return. Arquette’s Olivia goes from overstressed single mom to a beloved psychology professor, all the while exhibiting a dangerous tendency to attach herself to men (a former professor turned husband, a military veteran) whose apparent seriousness mattes over the torrent of their rage and self-loathing. (Character actor Marco Perella is terrifying as Mason’s alcoholic stepdad, whose bouts of stern fathering teeter full-bore into abuse, making emotional hostages of his wife, children and step-kids.)
Using music, from Coldplay’s “Yellow” to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and the change in Mason’s haircuts, among other things, Linklater cleverly marks the passage of time as his protagonist evolves from a disinterested grade schooler half-assedly cutting out silhouettes of Texas for a make-work project to a skilled photographer, prone to thoughtfulness, isolation, and straight-up weirdness. What’s remarkable is how the film feels like it’s actually bending around its star, as if there were a natural continuity between Coltrane’s own lurch from childhood to adulthood and Mason’s.
Boyhood offers a voyeuristic sense of watching not just a character, but a whole person grow up, developing in real time. When Mason, who feels more like a documentary subject, dramatically deactivates his Facebook account to the mock-protestation of a girlfriend, he tells her, “I just want to try and not live my life through a screen.” It lands like an in-joke on this being precisely what Linklater is offering.
And as in something like Dazed and Confused, Linklater demonstrates a vitalizing compassion for the growing pains of adolescence. Kids ogle lingerie ads and drink beer and smoke weed and drive around making out. Their indiscretions are never in aid of pushing the plot forward in some engineered way. It just is. In the same way that people just sort of are. It’s hard to conceive, even theoretically, of a less moralizing filmmaker. Linklater doesn’t so much forcefully reject as just casually shrug off the idea of punishment and dramatically contrived lesson-learning as narrative shorthand.
Linklater possesses a rare attentiveness to the fineries of human interaction and, even more importantly, exhibits an apparent affection for people, in all their gawkiness and peccadilloes, even in their self-destructiveness. In Bernie, his sensitivity and generosity enlivened a set of weirdoes all impassively embroiled in a small town conspiracy. In the Before trilogy, his thoughtfulness plays out across the wearying of a romantic relationship. Dazed and Confused remains one of the light-touch masterpieces of its decade precisely because of Linklater’s apparently effortless ability to just let the laidback bustle of the Austin suburbs sort of reveal itself at its own pace. But never before has the director’s sensibility come to bear so fully, persuasively, and sensitively over what feels like whole range of human experience. Who else (besides Mike Judge, maybe) could sketch backwoods Texas Bible-thumping without lapsing into haughty caricature? Who else would cede the grace notes of a nearly three-hour film to the stoned, half-formed thoughts of a teenager?
In places, Boyhood may recall the ambling lenience of Linklater’s Before films (plenty of roving cameras trailing characters as they make idle chit-chat). The difference is that this film’s knowingly prosaic revelations belong not to starry-eyed lovers, but economically stressed single mothers and tripped-out teenagers, and as such they feel, in their workaday naturalism, more honest. Linklater has crafted a quotidian epic, a film sprawling in scope and ambition, bottomless in human feeling. Not since Altman’s Nashville has an American film felt as real as life itself.
Berlinale runs from February 6—16.